- The Virgin and the Grail: Origins of a Legend
In both popular fiction and academic research, the Holy Grail continues to hold a fascination that is apparently as strong at the dawn of the twenty-first century as it was in the twelfth. Notwithstanding the wildly popular excesses of the Da Vinci Code and its various offspring, scholarly works such as Richard Barber's The Holy Grail: Imagination and Belief (2004) have provided fascinating scholarly reappraisals of the origins, significance, and historical tenacity of this complex set of Arthurian narratives and motifs. In a similar manner, Joseph Goering's The Virgin and the Grail: Origins of a Legend is a concise, clearly written, and accessible introduction to the earliest cluster of stories and visual depictions of the Grail. It fills a substantial lacuna in Barber's larger study. Where Barber reviews the literary tradition of the Grail through the centuries, Goering focuses primarily on a significant set of Grail paintings, probably produced a few decades before Chrétien's original Conte du Graal, that are found in several churches of the Spanish Pyrenees. This unexpected alternative source for the Grail – southern French/Catalan and visual, not northern French and literary – provides a compelling focus for Goering's investigation into the possible origins and contemporary significances of the graal or gradal.
The Virgin and the Grail is divided into three parts. In the first four chapters Goering reviews the major early writers of the Arthurian Grail tradition, including the romances of Chrétien de Troyes, Wolfram von Eschenbach, and Robert de Boron, and the chronicle of Hélinand de Froidmont as well as the anonymous Estoire del saint graal. Briefly summarizing each, Goering notes their ambiguities and different representations of the 'grail.' These summaries are very well presented, but some treatment of the four major 'Continuations' of Chrétien's Conte du graal would have been welcome as well. In the second part, we are introduced to the fascinating world and artistic milieu of early twelfth-century Catalonia and the churches of the region. Here the brilliant painter of St Clement of Taü ll/Tahull – the 'Master of St Clement' – made beautiful frescoes of Christ and his apostles that include an enigmatic representation of the Virgin Mary holding a graal, a shallow bowl exuding radiant light. Other churches in the region had similar pictures (and in one case, a damaged statue) with this Grail motif that is found nowhere else in [End Page 222] Christendom. These are roughly dated to the decades before Chrétien's Conte du graal and they constitute something of a local mini-tradition. In the third part, as no contemporary written explication of these images is extant, Goering provides an investigative review into what they might mean and how they might have come to figure so prominently in the region. From there, through biographical and ecclesial connections, Goering also speculates judiciously on how the Grail could have made the leap from this originary ecclesial context – and from the hands of the Virgin – to a more northern literary setting in Chrétien's romance and, ultimately, to the rest of Europe and the world.
The regional details and historical background of this Catalonian context are fascinating and Goering does an admirable job presenting them. His concluding hypothesis identifying a possible real-world inspiration for the Grail knight Perceval is, on the whole, unconvincing, if only because it raises so many more questions than it effectively answers – and many more than the author could deal with in such a brief study. The book is expensive for its small size, but it has wonderful colour reproductions of the frescoes of St Clement of Taü ll in addition to extensive black-and-white reproductions. The Virgin and the Grail is a study that anyone can read and enjoy, and it is engagingly structured as an intelligent and fun historical investigation. While serious Grail enthusiasts may be left wanting more, anyone with an abiding interest in this enduring symbol will enjoy this book and its contribution to our...